One of the most exciting things about surfski racing is the head game.
A good race is just as much, if not more, about mastering tactics and race strategy than it is a test of fitness. Flat water races, or races with distinctly different pieces of water are particularly tactical. Anticipating moves from your competitors and positioning yourself properly in crux places on the course most often determine the race outcome.
Only two weeks after my trip to San Diego, I was back in Southern California for the NAC Hal Rosoff Classic, 6km of harbor flat water, 6km of exposed ocean out and back, and 6km of flat water to the finish. The perfect conditions to put my tactical racing to the test. Powerhouse Tim Burdiak and Newport legend Philippe Boccara were on the start list, as well as, Rich Sprout and Cliff Meidl teaming up in a double. It was the double captained by Rich that took overall honors in San Diego and as soon as I saw them on the starting list, I knew my strategy had to revolve around them.
In surfski racing, it’s always wise to line up next to your rivals. Primarily to mark an early break away move from your opponent, but also to avoid being the odd man out if the pack starts before the gun (a notoriously common occurrence in surfski racing). Needless to say, I stuck to the double like glue during the warm up and made sure we were side by side when race did begin. The start was fast. Once again, Tim Burdiak showed his form by pulling hard off the line, leading the whole pack for the first kilometer and making it look effortless. His pacing put me under pressure, especially since my race strategy was to conserve at the start.
Im not the fastest off the line, so the key was to avoid getting dropped while slowly building into my race rhythm. Luckily, after a furious start the double and I hit our stride. Rich and Cliff pulled ahead to take the lead. The pack surged to reform around the double, but with a solid interval only Tim and I were able to hang on. Just like that, it was a three boat race.
Tim was strong, especially after such a quick start, but I had to keep my focus on the double. As I hoped, the double dictated the pace from there. Just before the we left the harbor they put in another burst of speed, dropping Tim and forcing me to scramble to stay with them.
As their pace cooled and we turned upwind, I knew it was my turn to make a move. The single is easier to manhandle and push in the ocean and I took full advantage pushing hard to take the lead and round the halfway buoy first. As I turned 180 degrees around the buoy, I realized that we were alone. The double and I had put a gap on the rest of the field. It was down to two boats.
I was hoping to capitalize on my lead in the downwind, but the double countered with a ferocious interval, reeling me back and pulling onto the same wave as we turned into the harbor mouth together. After failing to drop or be dropped by the double, I knew it would come down to the finish sprint. From the harbor mouth, it was about pushing just hard enough to stay with them and at the same time relaxing, breathing evenly, and conserving as much energy as possible for the finish sprint. I had no idea how much the double had in the tank and how much they were saving up for the end, but I didn’t want to risk losing the race to find out.
I made my move before they expected it. Before we even started our approached to the final turn, I took off. I put as much into my kick as possible, treating it like the last 50 meters of a race. My strategy worked. I had plenty of gas in the tank for a strong surge. They made an effort to match me, but within 30 seconds, it was clear that I would make the finish sprint alone. Elated, I pushed hard to the finish and cemented a solid race with a clear victory.
1. Austin Kieffer 1:23:31
2. Rich Sprout & Cliff Meidl 1:23:51
3. Tim Burdiak 1:25:35
4. Philippe Boccara 1:27:31